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ADHD Diet: Quit the Fads, Cut the Junk Food Instead

The Role of Diet in ADHD

Certain foods such as sugar, preservatives and artificial colorings have been linked over the years to being a contributory factor in attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. Diets such as the Feingold diet and the Restricted Elimination Diet (RED) have been tested over the years, and may be of some help to some children, but these diets can be hard for parents to follow. Scientists now say that the best approach for most children with ADHD is to just stick to an overall healthy diet plan that is low in fats and high in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.

It is estimated that three to five percent of schoolchildren in the United States are diagnosed with ADHD, which involves in attention, hyperactivity, and impulsive behavior. The exact cause is unknown, but experts suspect there are both genetic and environmental factors. Stimulant drugs, such as Ritalin, are often the first-line medical treatment for the condition.

J. Gordon Millichap MD, a neurologist at Children's Memorial Hospital, and Michelle M. Yee CPNP reviewed nearly 70 studies on diet-based interventions for ADHD. The best study in recent years was from Australian researchers who noted that the typical “Western” style diet, consisting of processed, fried, and sugary foods, played a significant role in ADHD in adolescents.

Millichap and Yee reviewed specialized diets, such as the Feingold diet, which restricts foods with additives such as artificial colorings, flavors and sweeteners, and the Restricted Elimination Diet, which limits foods most commonly associated with allergies such as eggs, dairy, nuts and citrus fruits, but found that only a small percentage of children respond positively to them. Plus they are “complicated, disruptive to the household, and often impractical,” the authors write.

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So what does the science say about the role of diet in ADHD? There are three main points to consider when planning meals.

Number one is to cut back on sugary treats and processed foods. While the research on whether or not sugar contributes to hyperactivity has been conflicting, the authors note that there are certain brain effects that have been documented after kids eat a lot of sugary foods. This may account for some of the behavioral changes we note after eating treats. Eating highly processed foods has been shown to affect the brain also, particularly in a recent study that found that these foods impacted IQ levels in children.

Number two, switch out the red meat for fish once in a while and replace saturated fats such as butter with unsaturated ones like canola and olive oils. Omega-3 fatty acids from fish have been shown to have positive effects on the brain. But don’t rely on supplements for kids; instead, focus on feeding them a health, varied diet that also includes lean proteins, low-fat dairy, whole grains, and plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Number three, ensure that your child is eating enough calories and protein throughout the day, which may mean including at least two healthy snacks in addition to three meals. Some stimulant medications can blunt the appetite, and kids with ADHD tend to burn a lot of calories during episodes of hyperactivity, so feeding a child more often could ensure he or she will not lose weight or experience nutrient deficiencies. Certain mineral deficiencies, such as zinc and iron, have been known to contribute to a small number of ADHD cases.

Overall, however, keep in mind that diet’s main role should be a part of a comprehensive plan for treating ADHD and parents should work with their child’s health care provider for the best individualized program for their needs.

Source reference:
Millichap J, et al. "The diet factor in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder" Pediatrics 2012; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2011-2199.